Opera Corner: Young Artist Programs

By  | August 3, 2011 | 5 Comments | Filed under: Features, Opera Corner

An Opera Singer, YAPping away

Greetings from New York City, and welcome to the first article in a series called, Opera Corner.  Here you will find information on countertenors and their place in the opera world. I begin with a personal exploration of Regional Opera Apprenticeship programs in America.

It was only after both college and graduate school that I made the transition to singing as a countertenor. After six long years of struggling to succeed as a tenor and baritone, I was filled with excitement and a renewed passion for singing. However, I was met with interesting, yet perplexing questions about what to do next.  I was unsure what my future path would be, and I found myself needing to learn a new vocal technique on the job.

The Path Well-Taken

My first thought was to audition for Young Artist Programs (YAPs), where opera companies provide young singers with the hands-on-training they need to be successful in the opera world. This seemed like the natural path, as it was what I saw so many (non-countertenor) colleagues go on to do. It seemed like the fast track to a career in opera. However, countertenors in the US do not have equal access to the opera apprentice system available to standard voice types. This is for reasons as varied as appropriateness of repertory, the need to cast individual singers in multiple roles over a season, and public acceptance of the voice type.

Who Serves Whom?

We lack a repertory of educational outreach opera in English – or perhaps Spanish – that employ countertenors.

While YAPs exist to serve aspiring singers, those singers must also serve the needs of the program. A good deal of a young artist’s time is spent doing educational outreach, where they go out to schools and teach young children about opera and voice types/character types through the performance of mini-operas. Sadly many of these mini-operas do not employ countertenors, as the countertenor was seen as a fringe voice type when much of this repertory was composed. (Side note for all you American composers out there: We lack a repertory of educational outreach operas in English – or perhaps Spanish – that employ countertenors. This would be an interesting niche for young composers.)

Young artists need to be castable in a variety of roles throughout the season.

Another purpose of a YAP is to help the company cast both smaller comprimario roles and covers for main stage roles. As such, young artists need to be castable in a variety of roles throughout the season.  While a countertenor might be usable in one or two of the operas programmed, it would be tough to find something appropriate in everything.  Although there has been increased interest in both baroque opera and new works featuring the countertenor voice (Flight by Dove and Akhnaten by Glass come to mind), this is not the bread-and-butter of most companies.  American companies tend to program from the late nineteenth century repertory, a period that saw the countertenor voice type all but disappear from the opera stage.

Lean, Mean, yet Baroque-n

Baroque operas, with their smaller casts and orchestras, are seen as a financially viable alternative in the current financial climate.

Thankfully, many companies are expanding beyond the steady diet of Puccini and Verdi that has been served throughout much of the twentieth century. Baroque operas, with their smaller casts and orchestras, are seen as a financially viable alternative in the current financial climate. One of my first regional contracts, at the peak of the financial crisis, was Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice with Opera Memphis (not a city one would readily associate with producing Gluck). Many regional companies, like Opera Memphis, and Florentine Opera (who recently did a double bill of Purcell and Blow) are becoming more progressive programmers for both artistic and financial reasons. Stay informed of what companies are planning in future seasons through audition sites (like Yap Tracker and Musical America) and opera publications; look for roles that may not be traditional, but may suit your voice and acting abilities.

As a general rule, however, unless a company is actually doing an opera that uses a countertenor (as a main stage singer or cover), there are fewer opportunities within American YAPs. It is more advantageous to seek out main stage work where appropriate, or limit YAP applications to companies that either have a history of using countertenors, or have indicated a need in the future. Share your experiences in the comments below. Where have you applied and how were you received?

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Nicholas Tamagna is a countertenor based in New York NY. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist regionally throughout the US. He was educated at Manhattan School of Music and City University of New York at Hunter College and is the recent recipient of the Nico Castel Mastersinger Award. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.


  • Patrick Dailey

    This article comes at a perfect time for me as I preparing to audition for higher-level studio/young artist programs.  While home in Nashville, I had a coaching with the head vocal coach of Nashvlle Opera. She was very impressed with me and suggested that I contact the director of their young artist program. I was slightly concerned about how I would fit in to their program but she assured me that they would definitely be able to find something for me to participate in. The following day, I took her advice and emailed the YAP director. He responded very quickly and kindly, thanking me for my interest and explaining that the spots for their upcoming YAP program. He then went on to state that it would be very difficult for them to use me in their program in any capacity and I wanted to perform in Nashville I should plan a recital or contact some chamber groups in the area. 
    This wasn’t a complete shock but because of the reference from his colleague, I was quite hopeful that I could’ve been included in something even if I wasn’t an official young artist. What was most disappointing and disheartening is the fact that he didn’t give me a chance to sing for him.  In some schools of thought (and of course, singing) there seems to be a stigma  toward the countertenor. Many people put us all into one box as if we’re not individual singers. Because of this, some of the opportunities that “standard” fachs have even if a countertenor would be appropriate seem limited. The good news is that, with the variety of countertenors coming to prominence, opinions are quickly changing for music professionals and regular music lovers alike causing opera houses to take note. The advice give in this article is right on the money! Kudos to you, Nicholas! 

  • Tai Oney

    Wonderful article! I’ve applied to the Ryan Opera Center with the Lyric of Chicago (being that they have been countertenor friendly throughout their seasons). Before receiving an audition, I was sent back my application and fee with a letter kindly stating that they do not accept countertenors into their program. I was happy that they took the time to inform me (and return my check); it did, however, make me a little discouraged with the whole YAP process… I’ve found it to be rather difficult to secure a position as a countertenor.

    • http://www.ianhowellcountertenor.com Ian Howell

      Hi Tai, I am super curious whether they gave any more of a specific reason? “Not accepting countertenors” seems like such an unbelievable generalization to me :-)

      • Tai Oney

        Well…the exact words were “unfortunately, we do not have positions for countertenors in our program” To each his own and they have that right…

        • Anonymous

          You should try the UK, the RCM in particular where there is an incredibly strong record in supporting and promoting young counter tenors.

          Fully staged Handel operas with period bands form a central plank of the RCM’s comprehensive opera programme courses (also open to audition for Masters students).

          Currently, two counter tenors study on the RCMIOS course. The next collaboration with London Handel Festival will be Riccardo Primo conducted by Laurence Cummings in Spring 2012.

          All best,